Marc-Antoine Charpentier...

by Jo-Anne van der Vat-Chromy

Marc-Antoine Charpentier and the Messe de Minuit pour Noël, H. 9

Marc-Antoine Charpentier was born in Paris; his birth year is estimated as 1634.  Excluding his study years in Italy, Paris remained Charpentier's primary place of residence and employment.  He had a strong, formal education under the guidance of the Catholic Jesuits in Paris, and seemingly not destined for a career in music, registered for law school when he was eighteen.  However, in 1667 the path of Charpentier´s life changed when he went to Rome and studied music with Giacomo Carissimi.  Charpentier´s three years in Rome brought with it a deep understanding of the Italian school of composition.  Whereas the Roman opera was on the decline after 1660, sacred music filled the many churches of Rome, and oratorios played an important part of Roman religious life.  Charpentier´s successful, popular works represent a dynamic synthesis of the secular and liturgical forms.  Although actively prolific in all musical genres of the day, secular music, airs, cantatas, historical oratorios and theatre music, Charpentier is most often remembered as a composer of sacred music.  His synthesis of Italian and French styles, upon which later composers, such as Couperin, based their work, is not the least of his achievements.

Upon return to Paris, Charpentier served as house composer for Marie de Lorraine, Duchesse de Guise, a pious patron of the arts, until her death in 1688.  During this period Charpentier wrote music for the Dauphin of France, which, although failing to secure him a posting in the royal court, later earned him a pension from Louis XIV.  Charpentier also enjoyed a life long relationship with the Jesuit order in Paris.  It was during the period of 1688-1698, in addition to the financial support from his royal pension, Charpentier served as maître de chapelle at the Collège de Louis-le Grand, and then as maître de musique at the principal Jesuit Church of Paris, St. Louis.

On May 20, 1698, the post of maître de musique of the Sainte-Chapelle, the exquisite Gothic chapel in the Palais de Justice, fell vacant with the death of François Chaperon.  Charpentier pulled some political favors and secured this post, writing some of his most beautiful and impressive works during this late period of his life.  These late period works include, in addition to the Messe de Minuit pour Noël, the Te Deum and the Mass Assumpta est Maria.

Charpentier was a prolific and diverse composer, known, favored and respected during his lifetime, primarily for his sacred works.  He was, however, a lifetime competitor of Jean-Baptiste Lully.  Diametrically opposed in every aspect of their personalities as well as their composition styles, the bombastic nature of Lully (who died from an infection after stomping himself on the foot with his staff-like baton while "conducting") gave him the upper hand during his life.  After death, historians tend to view Charpentier as the more developed of the two composers.

Charpentier the man was an enigmatic and complex personality, about which little is known of a more personal nature.  In an uncharacteristic moment of self-disclosure, late in his life, Charpentier composed a mysterious and poignant work, the Epitaphium Carpentarij (no.474).  In this strange, semi-sacred dramatic Latin cantata, a character named as "the shade (ghost) of Charpentier" communicates with two wanderers in the underworld.  Here we find a rueful self-assessment: "I was a musician, considered good by the good ones, scorned as ignorant by the ignorant.  And since those who scorned me were much more numerous than those who lauded me, music became to me a small honour and a heavy burden.   And just as at my birth I brought nothing into this world, I took nothing from it at my death".

Beyond the cryptic quote in the Epitaphium Carpentarij, Charpentier left us little with which to chronicle his inner process or personal life.  There are no files of letters or diaries to round out our picture of his life beyond music.  What he did leave were meticulous files of all his compositions, which were sold in their entirety to the Bibliotheque Nationale of France by his nephew Jacques Edouard, after his death in 1727.

Marc-Antoine Charpentier
and the The Sung Mass in France

One of the interesting developments of the Mass in 17th and early 18th century France is that it actually remained outside the political and social focus of other developing forms of music.  Strict guidelines of the Catholic Church kept the focus of Mass music on the expression of the liturgy, and church composers resisted the influence of the influx of Italian influences in French church music.  Additionally, Louis XIV demonstrated an extreme lack of royal interest in masses set to music.  Thus, as of approximately 1670, court composers had almost completely stopped composing new masses.

In juxtaposition to this trend of the court composers, Charpentier, who oft regretted his "non royal" assignment to Sainte-Chapelle, was actually unhampered in terms of composing for the Mass structure.  He was a rebel who dared to approach the mass in the same musical language reserved for the motet.  Besides the sheer number of his masses, it is their originality and diversity that provides a unique body of Church music in this otherwise austere period in French sacred music.  In her book Marc-Antoine Charpentier (Oregon: Amadeus Press, 1995, p.310), Catherine Cessac states "From beginning to end, his masses consistently maintain a spirit of freshness and joy".

Analysis of the Messe de Minuit pour Noël

The Midnight Mass for Christmas, composed in 1694, is an excellent example of 17th century musical craftsmanship, while remaining highly accessible.  One of eleven masses scored for voice and orchestra, this work is set for four voices, two flutes, strings, organ and continuo.  It is written in choral anthem style, primarily homophonic, with several sections of imitative polyphony, and is through composed in nature.

The Messe de Minuit pour Noël is also an excellent example of a parody Mass.  Although parody masses were "out of fashion" by the 1680´s, Charpentier, by using the familiar French noël settings as the basis of the work, camouflages the parody aspect of the composition.  The source noëls for each movement are:
  • Kyrie: Joseph est bien marié; Or nous dites, Marie; Une jeune pucelle
  • Gloria: Les bourgeois de Châtre; Ou s'en vont ces gais bergers
  • Credo: Vous qui désirez sans fin; Voici le jour; A la venue de Noël
  • Offertoire: Laissez paître vos bêtes
  • Sanctus: O Dieu, que n'étois-je en vie
  • Agnus Dei: A minuit fut fait un réveil
Unlike later composers and organists who tended to use noël settings as springboards for instrumental virtuosity, Charpentier maintains the flavor of the source melodies in this work by keeping instrumental timbres simple and the use of effects to a minimum.  Throughout the work there are a minimum of trills, ornaments and dynamic contrasts, so as not to compromise the popular character of the melodies.

It is important to remember the social conventions of the seventeenth century with regards to Christmas.  It was a beloved feast day for both Catholics and non-Catholics alike; and music for Christmas shared a vernacular language that united both nobility and the common man.  The borrowed carol tunes, well known to his listeners (and some of them still current in the French-speaking world today) are delightfully treated in the French 17th century manière, by turns jaunty and tender.  They speak of the French countryside, of simple belief, and of childlike trust.  Not discounting his evident compositional mastery in this work, nonetheless one can conclude that Charpentier's stroke of genius in coupling Messe de Minuit on beloved melodies of a deeply spiritual feast day was a near guarantee of both immediate success and posthumous notoriety.

The harmonic structure of the work is in great part determined by the harmonization of the noël tunes themselves.  However, Charpentier displays a unique sort of harmonic boldness, by layering suspensions and other passing tone dissonances that resolve only after a great possible tension has been built.  The layers of suspensions and resolutions, found throughout the work, are a masterful way of deepening the layers of meaning in this parody mass.

Throughout this work, Charpentier characteristically sets the "petit coeur" (little choir) in juxtaposition to the full chorus, as well as contrasting upper and lower voices within the "petit coeur" itself.  This contrast adds color and interest in layers above the well-known noël melodies, and is reminiscent of the Italian polyphonic style popular during Charpentier´s study years in Rome.

An interesting aspect of this work is the instrumental music that Charpentier indicates, yet leaves unwritten, but yet features prominently in the overall structure and performance of the work.  Organ interludes form an integral portion of this composition, but are only indicated by penned manuscript instructions.  One could assume that the carols were so well known that any able organist of the day could fill them in.  Seven of the ten noëls used throughout this popular work were also arranged by Charpentier in the form of short instrumental pieces (H. 531, 534).  As indicated by another penned instruction, additional music for the Offertory, an instrumental setting of the carol Laissez paître vos bêtes (H. 531), is sometimes included in concerts and recordings.  These instrumental settings had been arranged four years prior to the Midnight Mass, in 1690.

Throughout the Messe de Minuit, four part strings, flutes (specifically and carefully designated) and organ have brief symphonies for purposes of economy, as well as forming an integral part of the liturgical structure.  Solo areas of trios, alto and tenor bass form an interesting contrast to the work as a whole, with highlights in the upper range indicated by doubled flutes, flutes and violins doubling and the soprano tessitura throughout the piece.  This instrumental-vocal doubling is especially evident in the Credo, the longest and most complex of the movements.  The key is D major - a "joyous and martial" key, according to Charpentier´s Règles de composition.

In terms of orchestration, Charpentier employs the Baroque technique of contrasts between ripieno (Italian translation: "stuffing"), or tutti sections employing all strings and flutes, and the concertino sections for flutes and basso continuo.  He also employs highly effective doubling of winds and strings with voices throughout the work.  The color of the flutes, both in doubling the strings and as "petit orcheste" in varying sections gives a beautiful, sweet flavor to the work as a whole.  The strings parts, especially if played on baroque instruments, give a delightful, hollow and natural sound that is both accessible and royal at the same time.

A note must be made about the very common practice of "double-dotting" or "notes inegales".  Charpentier, whose tendency was to clearly notate when he wanted the Italian style (straight eighth notes) or the French style (double dotted), did not make any French style indications in the Midnight Mass.  Perhaps this is due to the familiar nature of the practice itself, as well as the source material.  Later and modern day editions and recordings vary considerably between all aspects of this common practice tradition.

Of structural interest is the Golden Mean (.618%) of the entire work, estimated by time calculations at 22 minutes and 35 seconds.  This brings us to Movement 3, the Credo, six measures after Rehearsal 18.  It is the beginning of the statement of Christ´s crucifixion: Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato (Crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate), one of the few places of strictly original music in the work.

This structural highpoint lends powerful credence to the central communication of the work, a celebration of the incarnation of Christ.  Here we are reminded that a Child of Light, whose birth was so universally loved and celebrated, also died for our sins.  Charpentier´s understated genius, so similar to his personality during his life, is represented in this pivotal moment.


The Kyrie dates to 4th century Jerusalem and pagan antiquity.  In the 5th century, Pope Gelasius I substituted a litany for the Common Prayer of the Church with the Kyrie as the people´s response.  Pope Gregory I took the litany and struck out the unnecessary words and said that only "Kyrie eleison" and "Christe eleison" shall be sung, "in order that we may concern ourselves with these supplications at greater length."  In the 8th century, The Ordo of St. Amand set the limit at nine repetitions, which is still commonly used today.

Charpentier built the macro-structure of this movement around the use of the Kyrie in the Mass itself.  Due to the unifying function of the noël melodies on the microstructure, and their presentation style, there is considerable counterpoint throughout this movement, with the presentation of noël themes imitative of undeveloped fugal material.  The harmonic rhythm of this movement is very fast, changing on nearly every tactus.  This lends a strong textural coloring and complexity to the simple, familiar nature of the noël-based melody.   In contrast to the speed of the harmonic rhythm, the harmonic and cadential analysis indicates a very simple yet highly effective structure.  It is a very simple i-V-i structure, with a few areas of secondary dominant cadencing.  Not very daring or explorative, perhaps, but perfectly charming in terms of the noël itself.

The Gloria is set into seven sub-sections, each joyously portraying the Gloria text in word painting and attitude.  The noël Les bourgeois de Châtre is set in an almost footstamping in stamping homophony at the words Laudamus.  This movement also makes use of two sections of soloists; a men´s section made up of individual solos by tenor 1 and 2 and bass 1, followed by a men's trio.  A duet for sopranos follows shortly after Rehearsal 10.  The soli sections are followed by choral sections in strong homophonic presentations.  In this movement Charpentier explores areas of hemiola, specifically twelve measures after Rehearsal 9.

Both the Gloria and Credo are structured in the manner of grand motets.  The texts are divided into large sections, then set as self-contained sub movements for chorus followed by a soli section, followed again for chorus.  Despite the solemn nature of the Credo, Charpentier sets several sections to noëls.  Each section of the Credo parallels a phrase of the text, and Charpentier spins many permutations of tempo, melody and presentation to portray by tonal suggestion the impicit meanings of this all-important Catholic creed.

Three structure highpoints of this work occur in this, the longest of the five movements.  The first occurs at Rehearsal number 17, et incarnatus est.  Masterfully introduced by four simple chords that modulate: C: I iii 42 - iv6 - iii 43 /V 42 to V in A flat, an Italianesque relationship that brings an undeniable luminosity to the text, message, choral moment and movement.  This section in A flat is the most distant harmonically from the tonal center in C (originally D - B flat).

A second highpoint in this movement also serves, as previously mentioned, as the Golden Mean for the work as a whole.  At the most serious moment of the movement, Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato (Crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate), the statement of Christ´s life and death under Pontius Pilate, the music is fully original, appropriately sober and reverent in the midst of a charming and somewhat rollicking mass setting.

It is at the third structural highpoint of the Credo, at the text Judicare vivos et mortuos (7 measures before Rehearsal 22), that we get a brief glimpse of Christ the Judge.   Everywhere else in this gentle, tender work, He is a newborn infant.  Another original section, it is here that we also have the most distinct and adventurous harmonic structure, and the only use of an augmented chord in the entire work.

The repeated use of the word "Sanctus" (twelve times) in the thematic presentation, superimposed on the words of the noël, gives an amazing tenderness to the movement as a whole.  The reverence and gentleness with which the acclamation "holy" is repeated, lifted, stretched and savored is so implicative of the Christ Child that it makes the second line of this standard of the Mass ordinary (Dominus Deus Sabaoth) nearly unnecessary, and it is not presented.  This is a unique twist as to the "receiver" of this prayer.  In a normal Mass setting, the faithful are addressing this prayer to God the Father and Jesus Christ.  In this Christmas Mass, we address the newborn Jesus for the entire setting.

Agnus Dei
The tripping minuet rhythms and the levity of the Agnus Dei may strike the listener as a bit of a shock!  This normally reverent prayer is set in alternatum fashion upon a jovial melody in a fast ¾ meter.  Perhaps for Charpentier, the "Agnus Dei" was just a newborn, so he felt he could get away with a lack of convention.

This movement is in ABA form; however, the text is only in the B Section.  The orchestra plays the first and third sections, and the movement as a whole is unified by the noël A minuit fut fait un réveil.  The chorus is four parts and there are no solo ensembles larger than a trio.  Sometimes a repeat is added to the B Section, as it is rather short to make a dramatic ending, and the words dona nobis pacem are often substituted in the last four measures.

As the most recorded French composer of the Baroque period in current history, it would seem that Marc-Antoine Charpentier, overshadowed, private and oft silent in life, has had a bit of revenge.

Through his painstaking record keeping of his major works, we are able to study and enjoy the talents of a composer who synthesized the sensuous nature of the Italian school with the pomp and grandeur of 17th Century French Court Music, while at the same time introducing this flavor into French Sacred Music.  Charpentier´s music captures the essence of the French nobility in its prime before the French Revolution swept it away.

In addition to these pivotal innovations, the Messe de Minuit pour Noël, through its masterful use of parody and the cultural conventions surrounding the celebration of Christmas, managed to remain, even unto today, firmly implanted in the hearts of performers and listeners.  Accessible to church choirs, advanced student ensembles as well as highly advanced choirs, the Messe de Minuit pour Noël provides the first time choir with in-depth experience with a masterwork, as well as presenting the highly advanced choir with the opportunity to recreate an expressive gem reminiscent of 17th Century France.  Charpentier´s use of beloved carols, dynamically developed with structural, harmonic and instrumental finesse, achieved a work accessible and translatable to many strata of musicians and listeners in his day, as well as for us today.


  • Kyrie eleison Lord have mercy (3 times)
  • Christe eleison Christ have mercy (3 times)
  • Kyrie eleison Lord have mercy (3 times)
  • Gloria in excelsis Deo. Et in terra pax  Glory in the highest to God. And peace on earth
  • hominibus bonae voluntatis. Laudamus te. Benedicimus te.  to men of good will. We praise thee. We bless thee.
  • Adoramus te. Glorificamus te. Gratias agimus tibi  We worship thee. We glorify thee. Thanks we give to thee
  • propter magnam gloriam tuam. Domine Deus, Rex coelestis.  because of thy great glory. Lord God, King of heaven.
  • Deus Pater omnipotens. Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe.  God Father almighty. Lord Son only begotten, Jesus Christ.
  • Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.  Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.
  • Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.  Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
  • Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram.  Who takes away the sins of the world, receive our supplication.
  • Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.  Who is seated at the right hand of the Father, have mercy on us.
  • Quoniam tu solus sanctus. Tu solus Dominus.  For thou alone are holy, thou alone are the Lord.
  • Tu solus altisimus, Jesu Christe.  Thou alone aret the most high, Jesus Christ.
  • Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.  With the Holy Spirit, in the glory of God the Father. Amen.
  • Credo in unum Deum, Patrem omnipotentem,  I believe in one God, Father almighty,
  • factorem coeli et terrae,  maker of heaven and of earth,
  • visibilium omnium, et invisibilium.  of all things visible and invisible.
  • Et in umum Dominum Jesum Christum.  And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
  • Filium Dei unigenitum.  The only begotten Son of God.
  • Et ex Patre natum ante omni saecula.  And of the Father born before all the ages.
  • Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero.  God from God, light from light, true God from true God.
  • Genitum, non factum, consubstantialem Patri,  Begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father,
  • per quem omnia facta sunt. Qui propter nos homines,  by whom all things made were. Who for us men,
  • et propter nostram salutem descendit de caelis.  and for our salvation descended from heaven.
  • Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto  And was made flesh from the Holy Spirit
  • ex Maria Virgine. Et homo factus est.  out of the Virgin Mary, and became man.
  • Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato,  Was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate,
  • passus, et sepultus est.  suffered, died and was buried.
  • Et resurrexit tertia die, secundum Scripturas.  And he rose on the third day, according to the Scriptures.
  • Et ascendit in caelum, sedet ad dexteram Patris.  He ascended into heaven, and he sits at the right hand of the Father.
  • Et interum venturus est cum gloria,  And he again he will come in glory,
  • judicare vivos et mortuos,  to judge the living and the dead,
  • cujus regni non erit finis.  of whose kingdom there will be no end.
  • Et in Spiritum Sanctum Dominum, et vivificantem,  And in the Holy Spirit of God, the giver of life,
  • qui ex Patre Filioque procedit.  who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
  • Qui cum Patre, et Filio simul adoratur  and are worshipped
  • et conglorificatur, qui locutus est per Prophetas.  and glorified together, and who is spoken through the Prophets.
  • Et unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam Ecclesiam.  I believe in one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
  • Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum.  I confess one baptism for the remission of sins.
  • Et expecto resurrectionem mortuorum.  And I expect the resurrection of the dead.
  • Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.  And everlasting life through all the ages. Amen.
  • Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,  Holy, Holy, Holy,
  • Dominus Deus Sabaoth.  Lord God of Hosts.
  • Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.  Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.
  • Hosanna in excelsis.  Hosanna in the highest.
  • Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
  • Hosanna in excelsis.  Hosanna in the highest.
Agnus Dei
  • Agnus Dei,  Lamb of God,
  • qui tolis peccata mundi,  who takes away the sins of the world,
  • miserere nobis.  have mercy on us.
  • Agnus Dei,  Lamb of God,
  • qui tolis peccata mundi,  who takes away the sins of the world,
  • dona nobis pacem.  grant us peace.